• Photo: Flash90

Knesset Elections and a Super Tanker

Johannes Gerloff - 29 March 2021

Just in time before everybody retreated into the Passover holidays, the results of March 23, 2021 were on the table. Israel had passed its fourth ballot in two years. Thirteen parties will be represented in the 24th Knesset of the Jewish state. What sounds like an unlucky number for Germans is sacred to Israelis. According to ancient Jewish tradition, “the thirteen” are the thirteen characteristics of the one, true, living God.

The sturdy ones, the losers and the winners

Looking at the distribution of mandates and comparing it with the election from one year ago, the first thing you notice is the parties that are stable: the ultra-orthodox parties. Both the Sephardic Schas (9) and the Ashkenazi United Tora Judaism (7) were able to hold their mandates. The same applies to the secular-nationalist party “Israel Beiteinu” (“Israel, Our Homeland”) of Avigdor Lieberman. Netanyahu’s Likud (30) may also be counted among the sturdy taking into account that he lost six seats to the founding of the new splinter party “New Hope” of the former Likud prince Gideon Sa’ar.

The big loser in this election was the Joint List of Arab parties (6). It has lost nine seats compared to one year ago. The Islamist Ra’am (United Arab List) under Mansour Abbas from Maghar in Galilee, however, won four mandates straight away. The former joint list of “Kahol Lavan” (“Blue White”) (8) and “Yesh Atid” (“There is Hope”) (17) has lost eight mandates.

For Labor (7) and the zionist-communist Meretz party (6), joining forces during the last election obviously did not pay out. Individually, they have now been able to secure a total of six more mandates. Possibly some voters of the Arab-communist Hadash party voted for Meretz this time. In addition to the low turnout in the Arab sector, this could explain the dramatic loss of the joint Arab list.

The two nationalist parties “Yamina” (“Towards the right”) (7) under Naftali Bennett and the “Religious Zionists” (6) were even able to gain seven seats. Obviously, their unification under the leadership of Bezalel Smotritch and Itamar Ben-Gvir paid off for the three splinter parties “National Union”, the neo-Kahanist “Otzmah Yehudit” (“Jewish power”) and the “Noam” party, decried as homophobic. In this way, the votes from the very edge of the right wing political spectrum of Jewish society were not lost by the 3.25 percent threshold.

Surprises and novelties

The outcome of these elections hardly surprised anyone. That Defense Minister Benny Gantz (Kachol Lavan) is back in the Knesset after an effective election campaign may have astonished some. Furthermore, it is interesting that Islamists have a voice in the parliament of the Jewish state.

With Rabbi Gilad Kariv, a non-Orthodox rabbi is officially entering the parliament of the Jewish state of Israel for the first time. Ultra-Orthodox politicians have already announced that they will boycott the reform rabbi. The 47-year-old Kariv has been a leading member of the Labor Party, executive director and president of the reform movement, which has just over fifty congregations in Israel. About ten percent of Israeli Jews confess to adhere to the reform and conservative movements of Judaism.

What was it all about in spring 2021?

It was not about Corona, data protection, personal freedoms or economic challenges, nor about the largest oil spill that Israel has ever experienced. Neither religious-secular tensions nor the water shortages in the entire region, nor the strained relations with Jordan were electoral issues of interest to Israelis.

After Trump and Netanyahu together with their Arab friends had declared the Palestinian question to be irrelevant through various normalization agreements, after the annexation of the West Bank was subject to grand election promises during the last election campaign and Netanyahu clearly showed no interest at all in a diplomatic solution to “the Middle East conflict” with the Palestinians, one might assume that these should have been campaign themes. But, far from it!

One Arab columnist went to great lengths trying to prove in an Israeli daily newspaper that Hamas could not wish for a better Israeli prime minister than Benjamin Netanyahu. A trial against alleged Israeli war criminals is pending before the International Criminal Court of Justice in The Hague. The warfare in the Arab world around Israel continues, even if interest in it seems exhausted, and nothing at all has been resolved with Iran. But security and diplomacy were not an issue at all in Israel’s recent election campaign.


The super tanker in the Suez Canal

Everything revolved around Benjamin Netanyahu, his personality, his influence, his pending corruption lawsuits, the enthusiasm or hatred for him. Even journalists who tell how poisonous the prime minister is with media representatives could not avoid admiring his professional demeanor in public.

Netanyahu is exactly the same in Israeli politics what the Evergreen super tanker is in the Suez Canal, one political commentator hit the mark. Without the huge tanker in the eye of the needle between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean, traffic would flow unhindered.

On Sabbath Eve, immediately before the Passover week came down on Jewish society of Israel, Gideon Sa’ar tweeted: “For the fourth time in two years, Netanyahu has failed and not succeeded in achieving a parliamentary majority of 61. Without Netanyahu, a stable government can be formed easily and quickly. I call on Netanyahu: move aside, free Israel and allow the country to move forward.”

Anti-Netanyahu commentators even see his person as “a gradual diminishing and weakening” of their democracy. From their point of view, the March 2021 election was a fateful election concerning the future Israel’s democracy.

Maneuvers and tricks

Immediately after the Passover holiday, Israel will face a time of maneuvers and tricks. All that is clear is that Netanyahu lacks a majority to form a coalition that will be capable of forming a stable government. Netanyahu is more popular than anybody else – but not more popular than all of those together who vehemently oppose him. A quick look at the opponents of Netanyahu shows: They have nothing in common except their rejection of the person of Netanyahu.

The Islamist Mansour Abbas speaks to the declared anti-religious opponents of Netanyahu. However, neither he nor Netanyahu blocked each other with hasty declarations, although the racist neo-Kahanist Itamar Ben-Gvir seems to be firmly embedded in the Netanyahu camp.

The ideological stretching exercises on both sides are extremely exciting. The question is not only whether Smotritch and Ben-Gvir might theoretically might belong to a government that is supported by Abbas, but also whether Abbas could support a government that is bombing the Gaza Strip.

Avigdor Lieberman suggested a law that would prohibit anyone charged with criminal offense from forming a government. With this bill he hopes to be able at the same time to unite all Netanyahu opponents and to incapacitate Netanyahu.

Meanwhile, the Passover holidays are used intensively for personal conversations. There are indications that the Likud is addressing all members of the “New Hope” individually in order to persuade them to join a Netanyahu coalition. Netanyahu is said to have even offered to Gideon Sa’ar to resign after one year – which Sa’ar flatly refused.

Naftali Bennett has called for “statesmanlike and responsible action” to “save Israel from chaos”. Together with Yair Lapid he discusses the formation of a government for “national healing.” But even a “government of national healing” may be able to combine only 52 mandates so far, whereby the Islamists are expected to tolerate the government from outside.

Meretz is supposed to be part of the coalition, but not of the government. The ultra-orthodox parties should be able to join later on – but no one knows how they are supposed to get along with the declared anti-religious Lieberman. In addition, Bennett and Sa’ar are unable to agree on whether to depend on the votes of Arab parties.

In the coming few weeks it will be exciting to see who will be how much ideologically flexible, who will come up with which tricks, who will be capable of which political contortions. Practically no constellation is unimaginable.

About the Author